Robot Umps and the Death of Jeff Mathis
We should be prepared for the unintended ripple effects of robot umps.
Earlier this year, the Atlantic League announced that they would be implementing certain rule changes starting this season. The Atlantic League, a high-ranking, independent, professional baseball league, announced a three-year partnership with Major League baseball, and with this partnership came the agreement that they would test out certain rule changes that MLB may want to implement in the future. This is nothing new for MLB, as they have long used their own minor league system in order put certain ideas into action. The Atlantic League, which is littered with ex-MLB players and former top prospects, will now serve as another testing site for Commissioner Manfred and Co. to use.
The rule changes that received the most press are limits on defensive positioning, effectively ending the shifts that have become increasingly trendy in today's game, dimension changes, namely moving the mound back two feet, and the three-batter minimum for pitchers, which will be implemented in MLB by 2020. There is another alteration though, which has been kicked around in the past, that could change the game in some unexpected ways; the robot home plate umpire.
In the Atlantic League this season, home plate umpires will receive notifications about balls and strikes via TrackMan radar tracking technology. In effect, the purpose of the home plate ump in the Atlantic League this year is really just to keep the game moving, maintain order, and make decisions on balls in play, as he is simply relaying information when it comes to pitches. Balls and strikes are the biggest points of contention when it comes to player-umpire relations, so it is clear MLB wants to assuage this issue.
In general, MLB umpires get it right behind the plate about 90-95% of the time. While this may seem acceptable, it also means that thousands of pitches are incorrectly called every season. Every pitch carries monetary value for players. Their livelihoods often rest in the hands of the man behind the plate, further motivating MLB to resort to technology to get things right 100% of the time instead of 90-something%. Managerial challenges for plays on the bases and home runs have become an accepted part of the game. Why should we not also aim to solidify the accuracy of the most common occurrence in the sport, the pitch?
It makes perfect sense.
But we should be prepared for the ripple effect.
The obvious one will likely be pitchers attacking the upper part of the zone more often, which wasn't called as often with human umps. The inside, outside, and low part of the zone will seemingly shrink, as this is the area that umpires typically have extended, particularly in two strike-counts. Pitchers will adjust, hitters will adjust, and everyone will be fine.
There is one group of players who will not be fine, however; the Jeff Mathises of the world.
The continued evolution of advanced statistics has given players, organizations, and fans a new understanding of the game. Across baseball, these numbers have re-shaped how we interpret what is in front of us. Baseball has become better at evaluating the value of hitting, pitching, base-running, defense, and, most importantly for Mr. Mathis, pitch framing.
You see, Jeff Mathis is not a good big league hitter. Like, he is REALLY not a good big league hitter. His career batting average sits just below the Mendoza line at .198. He doesn't hit for power. He doesn't run. He doesn't get on base. Over a 14-year career and 2,694 plate appearances, he sports an OPS of .564 and an oWAR of -4.4 (as per Baseball Reference).
But man, can he receive back there.
This is the only way Mathis has been able to stay in the big leagues for this long. He is a defensive specialist through and through, the quintessential backup catcher that pitchers absolutely love to throw to. Why? Because he turns balls into strikes better than anyone in the game.
Mathis converted 54.3 percent of the pitches he received in the "Shadow Zone" to strikes in 2017, tied for best in the league. "Shadow Zone" refers to the area just around the borders of the strike zone, where a catcher like Mathis makes his money. He again led the league in stealing strikes in this area in 2018, with a conversion rate of 55%. The man is simply a magician when he catches a baseball.
Unfortunately, if this robot ump experiment makes its way to the Show, Mathis and his fellow light-hitting, framing wizards (Max Stassi, Austin Barnes, Tyler Flowers, etc.) might be out of the job.
There's no fooling tracking technology. No matter how good Mathis makes the pitch look back there, the umpire will know, definitively, whether the ball crossed the plate in the strike zone. Mathis's greatest asset, which was once in demand, will be rendered useless in the blink of an eye. His trickery will have finally met its match.
And it won't stop there.
Will there be any more ripples flowing out of this splashy new rule change? Why yes, yes there will be. Player evaluation will have to adjust. MLB scouts taking a look at catchers have long been taught to analyze their receiving ability. Does he stick the low pitch? Can he manipulate the corners? Does he let the high breaking ball get deep? All of these little skills add up to real value, which we are far better at quantifying nowadays. Insert the robot umps though, and what do we have left? The bat and the arm, and that's pretty much it.
Okay, maybe blocking too, for this will still be useful regardless of man or machine calling balls and strikes. But for the most part, catchers will have to hit and throw, end of story. It doesn't matter how they receive a pitch, they just have to make sure it doesn't get by them and that they are in a good position to throw runners out (more on that later). Then they have to mash baseballs. And there you have it. Your TrackMan-radar-model-catcher (or whatever tracking system MLB wants to go with).
Now we arrive at another potential wrinkle in this rule change; the running game. Already becoming rarer and rarer with the advancement of data analytics, the stolen base will become even more endangered if robot umps become a thing. For catchers, effective framing and throwing to bases are often enemies of one another. Catchers cannot stick and hold a pitch when runners are on the move, for the obvious reason of wasted time. To throw out a runner, they must adjust their bodies as the pitch is on the way in order to be in a good throwing position once they catch the ball, then have a quick transfer and release.
But in many situations, namely with two strikes, things change. With two strikes on the hitter, catchers are more likely to dedicate themselves to framing the pitch in lieu of being in an optimal throwing stance, which is one of the reasons it is a popular circumstance to steal in. The catcher's priorities shift after the second strike, and runners enjoy taking advantage of it.
Robot umps eliminate one of those priorities. Now, catchers can dedicate themselves to shutting down the running game, instead of that archaic framing stuff guys like Jeff Mathis used to be into. They can cheat on every pitch by getting in the perfect position to throw to the bases. Pop times will improve, and the stolen base will lose even more popularity.
So beware, Commissioner Manfred, other MLB executives, "forward-thinking" fans. 100% accuracy on balls and strikes will have some unequivocal benefits for this lovely game. Unfortunately, there will be certain adverse affects that should be taken into account as we analyze how it affects baseball in the Atlantic League. One season of Indy Ball is not enough to truly examine how robot umps will change the game, so it would behoove Mr. Manfred to truly weigh all of the potential pros and cons.
I, for one, do not mind a splash of human imperfection in the cocktail of America's Pastime. Umpire-player relations may not always be copacetic (see: Votto, Joey), but they are part of the game. There is nothing wrong with the occasional spirited home plate discussion between batter/pitcher/catcher/manager and umpire, and Commissioner Manfred should acknowledge that certain levels of authentic humanness connect the fan to the game he or she is watching. That is, also unequivocally, a good thing.
Here's hoping MLB acknowledges that.